The National Football League has legions of dead and depressed alumni, a team named after scalped Native Americans, and a man accused of beating and strangling his girlfriend who will now appeal his suspension because the league never wrote down any rules for why it does or doesn’t suspend people accused of beating and strangling their girlfriends.
But you didn’t hear about any of that for the last eight months. That would require the NFL to admit it has problems that aren’t cartoonish and ripped from a Disney movie.
Instead, the league gleefully co-opted its biggest celebrity to fuel a scandal about something out of a straight-to-DVD sequel of The Sandlot—something eminently manageable with a finite conclusion—then pitted him against a classic fall guy.
It never mattered whether the fall guy, Commissioner Roger Goodell, won or lost. It only mattered that he didn’t get the league to confront the scandals that could cost the league viewership or money.
In the end, Tom Brady got his four-game suspension reversed, and the NFL won anyway.
It is simply easier for the NFL to have a commissioner who can accept $40 million a year to fall on surface-level, non-lethal grenades while the league pressures broadcast partners like ESPN not to air the damning evidence that indelibly links the sport to the brain damage doctors know it causes.
In the eight months since two New England Patriots ballboys likely deflated footballs before the AFC Championship Game, nobody talked about the 30 former NFL players dead of suicide, their lives sometimes ended by a bullet to the chest, pleading publicly beforehand for their brains to be donated to science so kids wouldn’t have to ride out the end of their lives despondent and depressed because no one bothered to change the rules of a game in the name of continuing profit.
Nobody talked about the team with the racial slur for a name, whose coach is chuckling through rumors that he eliminated a quarterback he didn’t like from his depth chart by leaving him to “get battered behind a mix-and-match offensive line,” as USA Today put it.
Sure enough, Robert Griffin III was knocked unconscious and was ruled out indefinitely. He has one of those same pesky concussions the NFL has paid less than $1 billion to keep out of the public consciousness but have not fully remedied.
Nobody talked about the unembellished death and destruction the NFL is leaving in its wake as it does everything in its power to make $25 billion a year by 2027.
Baseball, remember, had a concussion problem once, except it was 100 years ago, and the league fixed it when someone died from it.
In 1920, Ray Chapman was killed by a spitball thrown in low light without his wearing a helmet. The league banned the spitball. It oversaw the adoption of helmets over the next few decades. It made sure players didn’t die playing baseball anymore.
Football could do the same, but that would require the league to admit it has a problem.
It’s clear now: The NFL would rather Goodell be an expensive patsy than confront the life-or-death problems facing it. A patsy is better for the bottom line.
Baseball, again, faced a similar make-or-break crisis right around the time of Chapman’s death, after the Black Sox scandal in 1919. The difference is, the sport acknowledged its systemic gambling problem and worked immediately to stop it.
The American and National leagues hired their first joint commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, whom a federal judge once said was endowed with “all the attributes of a benevolent but absolute despot.” With a bunch of firm decisions—expelling those who gambled on the game and creating new privileges for sometimes hapless minor league players—he saved and grew baseball.
David Pietrusza, Landis’s foremost biographer, doesn’t think the NFL could have a commissioner like that even if it wanted to.
“I think we’ve shut the door on anybody acting in this manner ever again,” he said.
That’s why Goodell, maybe by design, will pull off showy maneuvers to prove he’s trying to crack down for the public interest—even if those moves ultimately fail, and maybe never mattered to begin with.
“What [the owners] are doing is they’re probably trying to ride two horses: to have somebody at their level in control for them while having a phenomenal level of public trust—and that’s an almost impossible thing to do nowadays,” Pietrusza told The Daily Beast.
Goodell “has to appear truly independent while he’s looking out for the game and the league. Instead, you get someone who blends into the woodwork,” he said. “You can end up with a good guy who doesn’t have the trust of the public—or maybe you fail on both levels.”
Landis, for example, took on Babe Ruth in court and won. But Pietrusza said times are different now. Labor laws are different. Owners have lots of control—especially when record levels of cash keeps rolling in. That “despotic” power isn’t possible these days.
Plus, baseball was at a crossroads and in the midst of a true crisis. The NFL, right now, is richer than ever.
So why not have a commissioner who flails and fails as he argues in a real American court about texts and ballboys and the weight of some footballs? It’s better for business than the stories of 30 dead former players—their condition underreported by broadcast partners who need the league alive but not its players, their ghosts obscured by the color of money.